Once upon a time for PhDs in technical fields if someone wanted to know about your career aspirations, they would ask if you were interested in academia or industry, and “industry” usually meant bench work at a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company.

If you do wish to continue bench work but wish to leave the world of academia, then of course there are positions available in research, however you may be surprised about the number of other opportunities available to PhDs within these companies away from the bench. 

These alternate opportunities include positions in the areas of:

  • Business Development
  • Regulatory Affairs
  • Medical Science Liaison
  • Field Application Scientist

Entry Points

Since the options in pharma/biotech are quite varied, it makes sense to break down the entry points by job type and describe a few of the job responsibilities for each:

  • Research & Development

There are actually a few different areas within research and development to consider that include drug discovery and preclinical research, clinical research, and process development.  

Drug discovery and preclinical research jobs are the typical “scientist” jobs for PhDs as they pertain to the initial screening of potential therapeutic compounds and testing the efficacy and safety of the compounds on non-human animals.  The specific job titles will vary from one company to another, but they will likely contain the word scientist in one form or another (e.g., principal scientist, senior scientist, or just plain old scientist.)

Clinical research jobs pertain to the research done after the investigational new drug application (IND) and involve human trials.  Although the focus on human testing lends itself to an environment heavily populated by medical doctors, there are opportunities for PhDs.  As a clinical research scientist, graduate school training will come in very handy for responsibilities that include experimental design, data analysis, and composing final reports.

Process development scientists work in later stages of research and development and their efforts are mostly focused on optimizing the manufacturing process.  This optimization can involve developing new machinery that may be necessary for scale-up or streamlining protocols, so an engineering background may be helpful for some positions.

  • Business Development

The most likely title in the field of business development is business development manager, but there are other possibilities that include corporate development management, and strategic alliance manager.   Regardless of the specific title, the job’s focus will be in the areas of licensing, acquisition, partnerships, and joint ventures.  This focus on growing the business through outside relationships will require keen networking skills and quite a bit of knowledge in opportunity identification, valuation, and transaction.

  • Regulatory Affairs

It’s no secret that the world of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology are heavily regulated.  One benefit of these hurdles to drug development is the need for regulatory affairs experts.  One of the most common titles is regulatory affairs specialist, but other titles to look for include regulatory scientist and manager of regulatory operations.  Responsibilities involve managing interactions with government agencies, which can include submissions of investigational new drug (IND) applications, drug labeling, and marketing applications.

  • Medical Science Liaison

Although there are a few different job titles, which include medical science liaisons, scientific affairs managers, medical liaisons, medical scientists, and medical science managers, the main focus remains to build and maintain peer-peer relationships with outside experts called “key opinion leaders” (KOLs.)  This basically allows for companies to maintain ties to the medical community and their needs.  Internally, medical science liaisons serve as scientific experts, and externally, they serve as scientific peers and resources to make sure that the company’s products are being used effectively.  A good resource for information on how to break into this field was written by Dr. Samuel Dyer and can be found at

  • Field Application Scientist

Working as a field application scientist can serve as a great stepping-stone for those looking to transition from the bench to the business end of things.  These positions require you to demo new products and equipment, as well as provide on-site support to customers.  In other words, when tech support can’t solve a problem, they bring in the field application scientists.  The frequent client interaction is the reason for the thought that the field application scientist position is the perfect transitional phase between lab and business work.  Those who wish to move even further from the bench tend to go from field application scientist to positions in sales, product management, or marketing.    

Who are the employers?

Pharmaceutical/Biotechnology companies listed by state can be found here
Another very comprehensive list can be found here 

Application Process

For as diverse as the career options are within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, the application process is surprisingly similar and streamlined.  For larger companies, they will have a “Careers” section on their website, from which you can search the openings that are publicly listed.  Of course, don’t let that stop you from contacting someone directly to express your interest via an informational interview.  Although it’s easy to go through the process of submitting your resume and application online, beware that you will be subject to the computerized world that will screen out applications that lack keywords mentioned in the qualifications section of the listing.  You should do your best to make sure that the materials and information that you are submitting will not immediately take you out of the running for an interview.

For smaller companies and startups that may have caught your eye, don’t be afraid to send an email expressing your interest in their organization.  Nearly all companies have some sort of website, and if they are not yet large enough to have a dedicated “Careers” page, they should at least have a “Contact Us” page.  For informational interviews, the person that you could imagine would be your immediate superior would be the best person to contact if their information is available.  If that information is not listed, the next target is anyone that works in human resources or operations.  You would be surprised how few people go through this minimal amount of effort to inquire about open positions, so you will more than likely be received as a resourceful and motivated potential employee (not a bad first impression.)    

Career Progression

Career trajectories within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry are usually pretty transparent.  There may be a “senior” version of your position, followed by an associate director or director position waiting for you in the future should you choose to stay the course.  One of the benefits of being employed by such a diverse organization is the ability to move laterally to positions within other departments should you feel the urge to wander.  The one thing that tends to be less transparent, however, is the length of time between promotions.  Sometimes, the timeline for promotions can be more dependent on achievements (in the form of successful projects, acquisitions, IND/NDA approvals, etc.) than on time spent with the organization.  The time between promotions may also depend on the size of the organization that you are with; larger organizations may have a more structured schedule for promotion, while smaller organizations may be more dependent on the success of their pipeline or venture capital investment to allow for promotions.

Work Hours

Work hours within larger pharmaceutical and biotechnology organizations tend to be close to the 9-5 ideal for many positions.  As your role and responsibilities increase, hours tend to increase as well.  Any impending deadlines (FDA/EMEA applications, client requests, etc.) will also tend to push the boundaries of the usual work hours whenever necessary.  For smaller companies, work hours will depend on the current size and structure of the organization.  If you are in a startup environment, you can find yourself with a very undefined role across many areas of the company, which will often lead to undefined work week expectations and very variable hours. 


  • Research and Development

A reasonable salary expectation for someone with a PhD going into a research role within a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company would be in the range of $75-95K, depending on the specific role and the size of the organization (with larger organizations usually able to pay more).  Bonuses are also common, in the form of stock options and/or cash, usually in the range of $5-10K.

  • Business Development

It can be difficult to pin down a specific range for business development salaries since so many companies have very different roles and responsibilities (and titles) for those working in business development.  A general range for someone just getting into business development out of his or her PhD program would be in the range of $80-110K with some expectation of a reasonable bonus that can vary wildly as it may be performance based.

  • Regulatory Affairs

A reasonable salary expectation for a regulatory affairs specialist is in the neighborhood of $75-85K and an annual bonus of $2.5-10K.

  • Medical Science Liaison

There is a surprising amount of variation in salary between organizations when it comes to medical science liaisons.  Depending on the specific role and responsibilities, salaries can range from $100-150K with an annual bonus of $5-20K.

  • Field Application Scientist

A reasonable salary expectation for a field application scientist would be around $75-95K with an annual bonus of $5-10K.

Exit Options

There are opportunities for individuals with experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to apply their knowledge in many other career options that include equity research, sales, and consulting.  It is also a viable option to move laterally within the organization to another field within pharma/biotech, such as moving from bench research into business development.